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The Napkin Artist

Remembering Yiddishist, linguistics scholar, Holocaust survivor, and painter Edward Stankiewicz, who died this year

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(All art Edward Stankiewicz, courtesy of the author)
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In Buchenwald, through a series of accidents, he was classified as a Polish prisoner rather than a Jew, and he made the discovery of a library, “a treasure trove. It had books on philosophy, anthropology, history, and history of art, a number of German novels, and a few books in English.” That was where he read Lange’s History of Materialism, Shaw’s Saint Joan, and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, “learning the fine points of English.” In Buchenwald, amazingly, he also wrote a musical replete with sets and props. It was performed many times “with several mishaps” (one of the principals collapsed on stage and died a few days later).

Stankiewicz’s narrative is detailed, crisp, and unsentimental, sometimes reading like a rendition of the Keystone Cops. There are some fascinating descriptions of his jobs in Lvov as a tutor, a poster painter, a cataloguer in an empty art museum, painter of license plates, painter of radio towers, potato peeler and wood chopper, a cart-puller, an employee of the Judenrat, and finally a document forger. In the ghetto, with smuggled pen and India ink, he went into business counterfeiting work patches and work papers and then “branched out” to travel documents and birth certificates. I’ve often thought about this strange use of artistic gift, when I’ve looked through my small collection of Stankiewicz’s napkin art—pictures of horses, cats, fish, a bird, an elephant, all those Daumieresque faces succinctly drawn with arcs and hatching, pen strokes, and prestidigitation.

When I read My War in manuscript I wrote a note to Stankiewicz, asking, as a friend who simply wanted to know more, if he could add detail about his parents, two sisters, and younger brother, who had all died during the war years. I knew his father had been in the Bund. His mother had been born in Kazmierz. His younger brother had been paralyzed before the war in an “accident … his spine had been broken against a windowsill.” I also asked if he could enlarge the section about the Yiddish poets, most of whom had died tragically—some killed by the Nazis, and others in Stalin’s “Night of the Murdered Poets.” He didn’t respond.

In the 1950s Stankiewicz became a student of the Russian-born American linguist Roman Jakobson. He loved the elegance of structuralism. When asked the inevitable question, “Where does language come from?” he would say that wasn’t to be answered by linguistics. Once he said, “It will always be an enigma. There are so many theories—that it could be metaphysical, that it could be a gift of God, that it could be chance—and you could say they’re all equally valid.” That calculus must have provided the answer to the more personal question, right or wrong, which he asked himself daily: Why does one person survive and another perish?

Stankiewicz once gave me a gift, a miniature portrait, about the size of a large postage stamp. It’s rather old and must have been intended to be worn on a ribbon or a chain, but I’ve never done that. I’ve kept it to look at—the depiction of a young woman with long brown hair held back with a scarf. There’s a blue earring dangling from her ear. Her head is tilted and her eyes are glancing away. Just recently I realized the material that it’s painted on is bone.

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I read the memoir some years ago and found it mesmerizing. highly recommended.

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Napkin Portraits

Drawings by Edward Stankiewicz